The challenge of building smaller housing

Arguments against large houses and McMansions are unlikely to succeed using the current rhetoric. We need to consider how change happens.

To be clear, I am not defending the size of housing in Australia. It’s clearly not sustainable in all meanings of the word. They take up too many resources and by most reasonable measures they’re unnecessarily large. What I am outlining here is the challenges that are faced prosecuting these arguments and changing the Australian dream of a large house.

The arguments around housing affordability, size and equality are numerous and seemingly endlessly polarising. They’re mostly argued from an idealogical, policy (fact based) or political standpoint. Typically those that wield the power determine the final outcome. Let’s face it, architects have little power and are unlikely to win with facts or determination. So maybe architects need to more strategic in their tactics to instigate change.

First lets take a step back and consider the drivers motivating people to change or maintain their opinions or aspirations (hat tip to Seth Godin for this insight):

status: your home is the most visible representation of your status. Buying a smaller home or one with less rooms might not reflect the status to which they aspire.

affiliation: this is related to status, albeit in a more personal way. We all want to fit in. Seeking the reassurance of personal connection. Your peer group is the best indicator of what you do, think and aspire to. So people are motivated to own and live in a large house similar to their peers.

convenience: it’s likely that more often than not you will take the easy option. It’s far easier to buy a project home than a bespoke design.

Whilst the inertia these three drivers represent is difficult to overcome, it’s also the means to making change happen. They’re why people start smoking and why they might choose to stop. They’re why people wear particular fashion labels, put photovoltaics on their roof or start wearing face masks (or not in some cases). I’ll come back to this.

Considering one alternative to the distended project home, engaging an architect. The very same motivations that drive people to buy a project home are at play in engaging an architect. It’s about status and affiliation (less so convenience). You are just as unlikely to to convince people to give up their oversized project homes as you might to convince others to give up their bloated overwrought architectural trophy. It’s all about aspiration, status and affiliation.

The motivations and desires are the same, it’s only the world view or [values] that differ between wanting an architect designed exemplar and a hefty project home. So the key is not to focus on the land, planning, design and resources, and instead on the people and their aspiration. I have no illusions as to the challenge of changing this status quo. I also have no easy answers following these insights. I’m left with questions.

  • How might we increase the status of compact and efficient houses?
  • How might we use the weight of community affiliation to engender change in the size of our houses?
  • What are the affiliations that carry the greatest weight when it comes to instigating change in our communities?

If we can start to answer these questions, we might get a little closer to reducing the size of our housing.


Image from Six Maps

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach. I help architects rethink their practice and support them as they uncover better ways to work. I’ve worked in architecture for over 25 years, and I ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I believe improving practice takes asking hard questions and deep listening.

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